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National Sports Center pulling out all stops to keep USA Hockey program in Blaine

With the Olympics are over, the quarters where the women’s team prepared sits locked and empty. Though the players and key USA Hockey officials praised the job by Pete Carlson and his staff, he is working to woo the Olympic training program back.

Schwan Super Rink
The Schwan Super Rink in Blaine.

The first door on the right entering the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine leads to Pete Carlson’s office, a menagerie of boxes, hockey equipment and clutter that seems appropriate for an arena operations manager. Along the wall to the left of Carlson’s desk hangs something that explains a lot — a medium-sized, color poster of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic Team.

Carlson is a huge fan of the Olympics, and especially Olympic hockey. On his first day running the Eagles Nest Ice Rink in Verona, Wis., just outside Madison, in the mid-1990s, the Verona High School boys’ coach stopped by his office to book ice time. Carlson looked up and about had a stroke. It was Mark Johnson, son of the legendary Badger Bob Johnson and one of the 1980 Olympic heroes in that poster.

“He’s like, ‘I’m Mark Johnson,’ and I go, ‘I know,’ ” Carlson recalled last week. “The first thing I did was call my brother. It was pretty cool.”

Staff went several extra miles to help team
So two years ago, when USA Hockey chose the National Sports Center’s Super Rink as the base for its women’s residency and Olympic Team camps, Carlson was overjoyed. He gave his staff one directive: Do not give USA Hockey any reason to uproot from Blaine after the Vancouver Olympics.

Carlson gladly turned over 9,000 square feet of valuable storage space so USA Hockey could build a $350,000 dressing room suite for the players and coaches, a decision that did not meet with unanimous approval. “In operations, to lose storage was not good. Our guys went bananas,” Carlson said. “But I said, ‘Hey, we’re bringing in the Olympic Team.’ “

Players received invitations to NSC events, such as their annual Thanksgiving dinner. Media director Barclay Kruse started a fan club for them. Carlson let players golf for free at the NSC’s Victory Links Golf Course. And on snowy days, a thoughtful maintenance worker brushed the snow off players’ cars, even tilting their windshield wipers up to prevent sticking.

 But now the Olympics are over, the players have scattered, and the dressing room sits locked and empty. Though the players and key USA Hockey officials praised the job by Carlson and his staff, and no one has told him the Olympic team won’t return to Blaine, Carlson continues to fret about whether they will.

At the Olympic Summit in Chicago last September, USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean told MinnPost, “We’re not leaving Blaine. We love Blaine. … But we’re not necessarily going to be using it 12 months a year, all four years in a quad” (the four-year period between Olympics).

“For 2014, we’ve got to figure out what kind of program to put in place,” Ogrean said. “Whenever it is, Blaine will be the place for that.”
Mixed signals on future
Carlson said Ogrean has told him the same thing. However, Michele Amidon, the women’s director for USA Hockey, repeatedly uses phrases like “if we return to Blaine” when talking about preparation for the 2014 Games. That worries him.

In an email to MinnPost last week, Amidon confirmed that no decision has been made about a residency camp or pre-Olympic training. “It will be several months until we make any plans,” she wrote.

The U.S. team huddles around the net during a pregame ritual before their semifinals game against Sweden.
REUTERS/Alex Livesey
The U.S. women’s team huddles around the net during a pregame ritual before their semifinals game against Sweden.

Sources familiar with USA Hockey politics say Amidon has little clout within the organization, and the final call likely will be Ogrean’s. It’s hard to imagine USA Hockey walking away from a $350,000 capital investment, even though all the money was donated. (Merv Lapin, a Vail, Colo., financial executive, was the primary benefactor.)

But residency programs aren’t cheap. Ice time and travel must be paid for, and players receive modest stipends toward living expenses. USA Hockey won’t say how much the residency program cost, but outside estimates range as high as $100,000.

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The most pessimistic women’s hockey insiders fear that Team USA’s silver medal finish in Vancouver may encourage USA Hockey to scale back its spending before the 2014 Games, especially if Hockey Canada does the same.

“Michele and I talked the most,” Carlson said. “I basically tried to prod her a few times and say, ‘Hey, is there anything specific that we need to do differently to help our case to have the team back?’ And she continually said the same thing: ‘Pete, you’ve done everything, National Sports Center has been great, it won’t be a lack of what you haven’t done to have us back.’ That’s about what she left us.

“I would kind of read between the lines a little bit: Do they have to win gold for them to come back? Nothing like that was ever said. They never gave me the impression they weren’t coming back, but they never gave me the impression it was a guarantee they were coming back. So there’s almost no answer.”

* * *

The women’s team settled in Blaine as part of USA Hockey’s response to the disappointing bronze medal in Turin in 2006. USA Hockey jettisoned Coach Ben Smith, hired Amidon as its first director of women’s hockey, and listened as Olympic veterans Angela Ruggiero and Natalie Darwitz made a persuasive case for a residency program.

In the United States at that time, female players with no more college eligibility who hoped to improve their games were on their own. Canadian players had a central training location in Calgary and two semipro leagues to play in. Team USA’s mini-camps before big events no longer were enough for the U.S. team to keep up.

Ruggiero and Darwitz insisted the program be in a major metropolitan area, so players could work part-time or pursue graduate studies. That ruled out Lake Placid, N.Y., often a Team USA camp location. The National Sports Center, with its eight rinks, off-ice training center and proximity to the Twin Cities, appeared perfect.

Residency program a key component
By most measures, the program succeeded. The residency team played 41 games against men’s, women’s and boys’ teams, including a 10-game schedule in a Super Rink adult men’s league. (It finished 3-6-1.) The Minnesota Whitecaps, the only American team in Canada’s semipro Western Women’s Hockey League, loaded its roster with residency players and won its first league title. The residents also helped Team USA defend its world championship.

Ten of the 17 residents made the Olympic team, including captain Darwitz and four-time Olympians Ruggiero and Jenny Potter.

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However, the U.S. still fell short of Olympic gold. Canada won seven of 10 games from Team USA in the months preceding the Games, then added a crushing 2-0 victory in the Olympic final. That stoked fears around Blaine that USA Hockey might reduce or table its presence there, regardless of what Ogrean said

* * *

The only major snag in Team USA’s Minnesota location proved unexpected. In a state with more female hockey players than any other, the team had trouble finding quality opponents.

Replicating the speed and grit of international play can be difficult. Even women’s college all-star teams often don’t measure up. Johnson felt boys’ high school teams provided the right speed and physical play to challenge the Olympic team. (Team Canada reached a similar conclusion many years ago; this winter, it played a 30-game schedule in a Midget AAA league in Alberta.)

Amidon and Johnson hoped to play 12 games against Minnesota boys’ high school teams around its Qwest Tour commitments in November, December and January but ran into procedural roadblocks. Amidon told The New York Times she started calling around for opponents last April, unaware that many schools book non-conference games two years or more in advance.

Hopkins and Eagan high schools canceled their non-conference game so each could play Team USA. And Rochester Century had an opening. Team USA won all three games. But only two other schools offered to play, Amidon said; she turned both down because they weren’t as skilled as Hopkins and Eagan. (Amidon did not identify them.) As late as a month before the Olympics, Johnson himself was still working the phones trying for more.

“If Mark had somebody he could talk to who could have helped him through the bureaucracy, they would have gotten 50 games,” said Tom Ward, the director of hockey at the Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault. Shattuck’s prep hockey teams left the MSHSL years ago to play longer, more ambitious schedules.

Johnson used a connection to schedule Shattuck’s Midget AAA team, which beat Team USA, 8-5. Its coach, former NHLer Murray Eaves, is the brother of Wisconsin men’s coach Mike Eaves; Johnson coaches the Badger women. Ward said Shattuck, which had seven former players in the Olympic tournament (Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux skated for Team USA), would “absolutely” play the women next time.

High School League complications
If Team USA returns, Carlson said the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, which runs the NSC, will ask the Minnesota State High School League to allow schools a waiver for a 26th game, one over the regular-season limit, to play Team USA.

“We do have some political pull to say, ‘The Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission recommends this,’ ” Carlson said. “Using the contacts we have, we’d love to be able to help influence that change in the high school league.”

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MSHSL Executive Director David Stead also is on the commission. Stead did not reply to a phone message and an email. But Ward said Amidon shouldn’t bother.

“Dealing with the high school league is harder than dealing with the NCAA,” Ward said. “I’d be shocked if they got a 26th game. That would open a whole Pandora’s box.

“They need to be contacting people now if they want games four years from now. They should be contacting teams now and saying, ‘Stick with 24 [games].’ Especially the good teams.”

* * *

Carlson offered one other idea to entice Team USA to stay.

USA Hockey would like to add a state-of-the-art trainer’s room and more storage to its space at the Super Rink. But that area can’t be expanded, Carlson said. Even if it could, the NSC lacks the funds to build it.

So if USA Hockey commits to Blaine, Carlson proposed selling the team’s current space to an existing or expansion franchise in the Junior A North American Hockey League for $350,000, then giving that money to USA Hockey to fund a bigger facility elsewhere at the Super Rink.

“We’re going to drop some serious money into that place and make it the Ann Arbor of the women’s program,” said Carlson, referring to the USA Hockey men’s national team development program.

Even if that falls through, Ward said Minnesota, with so many hockey-playing schools and rinks to play in, gives Team USA reason enough to stay put. About 3,000 people filled the Rochester Recreation Center for the Century-Team USA game on Jan. 22, and the team drew good crowds in other venues around the state, too.

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“They can’t find a better place for a team,” he said. “We’ll stand up, beat our chest and help in any way we can.”